This book engages in a critical encounter with the work of Stanley Cavell on cinema, focusing skeptical attention on the claims made for the contribution of cinema to the ethical character of democratic life. In much of Cavell's writing on film he seeks to show us that the protagonists of the films he terms "remarriage comedies" live a form of perfectionism that he upholds as desirable for contemporary democratic society: moral perfectionism. Films are often viewed on television, and television shows can have "filmlike" qualities. The book addresses the nature of viewing cinematic film as a mode of experience, arguing against Cavell that it is akin to dreaming rather than lived consciousness and, crucially, cannot be shared. It mirrors the celebrated dialogue between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean D'Alembert on theatre. The book articulates the implications of philosophical pessimism for addressing contemporary culture in its relationship to political life. It clarifies how The Americans resembles the remarriage films and can illuminate the issues they raise. The tragedy of remarriage, would be a better instructor of a democratic community, if such a community were prepared to listen. The book suggests that dreaming, both with and without films, is not merely a pleasurable distraction but a valuable pastime for democratic citizens. Finally, it concludes with a robust response from Dienstag to his critics.
remind us that, for moralperfectionism, the act of interpreting is
prioritized over the interpretation. By, then, reading this claim
alongside the work of Jacques Rancière, I will emphasize his
claim that spectators are always already engaged in such
interpretation, but too often do not trust the legitimacy or
authority of their own interpretation over that of others
, songs, memoirs, paintings, performances and other
narratives in our united states of life. As you also know, I have
been deeply influenced by Cavell’s understanding of film, and
his understanding of skepticism and its relationship to moralperfectionism.
I guess that this background is one reason I have been
asked to be a respondent to your letter to Professor Cavell and your
lessons about marriage or moralperfectionism from The
Americans , a show in which beautiful super-spies don
disguises, fight villains, seduce informants and then return to
their normal suburban home to nag their kids about homework and
screen time. The premise seems so pulpy that I am sometimes
embarrassed to publicly profess my love for the show. The
Ibid., p. 67.
Ibid., p. 86.
Ibid., p. 89.
Ibid., p. 24.
Ibid., p. 89.
Ibid., p. 174.
In the convolutions of my phrasing here I am aiming to suggest that American Pastoral
belongs to the collection of works which operate in accordance with the idea of ‘moralperfectionism’ as argued for in the writings of S. Cavell, especially his Conditions Handsome
and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1990). In Cavell’s tight phrasing of the idea, the field of moralperfectionism is
either thy scar
would have been seen or my art misliked.’ Whereby I
gather that in all perfect works as well the fault as the face
is to be shown. 42
Alexander is depicted constructing
an image of bodily and moralperfection, given that physical appearance
could be taken as an indicator of moral character in the early modern
This chapter engages in a critical encounter with the work of Stanley Cavell on cinema, focusing skeptical attention on the claims made for the contribution of cinema to the ethical character of democratic life. In 1757, Jean d'Alembert wrote an entry on "Genève" in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédie, the great encapsulation of the Enlightenment, of which he was also one of the general editors. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva, had contributed many entries to the Encyclopédie on music and political economy and was well known as a composer and patron of the theater. Determined to oppose Voltaire's suggestion that theater represented cultural and political progress, he wrote a public letter to his editor and friend. It was published in 1758 as Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre. It provoked an extended public exchange and represented Rousseau's permanent break from d'Alembert, Diderot and all his former Enlightenment allies.